Henry Clark’s last days

UPDATED, June 30, 2021 to add an endnote.

What we do — and don’t — know about the Clarks’ only son (part 4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Henry Clark, his life, and his possible military service.
• Part 1: Meet the Children: Henry M. Clark
• Part 2: Henry Clark and the Civil War draft
• Part 3: Henry Clark – Civil War draftee
• and a related tidbit: Avoiding the draft, 1862 style

In our previous post, we discovered that Henry M. Clark was drafted for Civil War military service on November 10, 1863. Today we will look at the existing evidence recording Henry’s death and burial in April, 1866, aged 23. So far, we lack reliable documentation for Henry’s life during the 28 months between those dates; we’ll continue the search for Henry’s possible Civil War service in a series of upcoming posts.

The question remains: why did Henry Clark, only son of Jonathan M. and Mary (Turck) Clark, die so young? Milwaukee death records for the 1860s are uneven and incomplete; it’s not surprising that no death certificate exists. I have not been able to find a death notice in the Milwaukee newspapers. But we do have two contemporary sources that can shed some light onto the mystery of this Clark family loss.

Densmore W. Maxon’s 1866 diary

On April 2, 1846, Mary Turck Clark’s younger sister Elizabeth Turck (1828-1913) married an ambitious young settler, Densmore W. Maxon (1820-1887). Maxon began his Wisconsin years as a surveyor, and eventually rose to prominence as a businessman and politician. He laid out the village of Cedar Creek, Town of Polk, Washington county, about 18 miles north and west of the Jonathan Clark house in Mequon. Densmore and Elizabeth Maxon lived in Cedar Creek for the next 41 years.

The lives of the Maxons, Clarks and Turcks are deeply intertwined from the 1840s onwards. For at least one year, 1866, Densmore Maxon kept a pocket diary. These pages contain his notes on the final days of nephew, Henry Clark:

[Diary 1866], excerpts, from Maxon, Densmore W., 1820-1887. Densmore W. Maxon Papers, 1858-1886, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Wis Mss RX MAD 3 /33/R2. Images courtesy Liz Hickman.

Maxon’s notes, transcribed

D. W. Maxon’s handwriting is, for the most part, easy to read and transcribe. I have left various minor mis-spellings uncorrected; their meaning should be clear to the modern reader.

Thursday, March 8.
Today I went to Milwaukee, + stopped at Mrs Clarks —Henry, her son is ill with a sever cough

Wednesday, March 14.
[…] Call on Henry Clark gave him a letter to Dr. E. B. Walcott for an examination — […]

Saturday, April 21.
[…] We recd a lettr from Peter Turck stating that Henry Clark died at 3. this AM. His remains to be intered at Cedarburg at 1. PM on Monday next—
Sad Loss!

Sunday, April 22.
AM Weather fine Went to Rolfs for buggy to take the family to Cedarburg on tomorrow

Day fine
A little old snow may be seen in the sugar bush

Monday, April 23.
9 AM left home with family. + attended the buryal of Heny Clark at Cedarburg — where we met his Mother + Sisters with a large number of their friends from Milwauke — we arrived home at 7 1/2 PM.

Thus are earthly hopes blasted.

Henry Clark’s death was also noted in James. W. Woodworth’s diary, published after his death as My Path and the Way the Lord Led Me:

April 20. To-day Henry Clark died happy, as I hear, in Milwaukee; he was the only son of his widowed mother; thus are earthly hopes blasted.

Rev. Woodworth’s diary entry is in his typically dramatic style, and focuses on the state of Henry’s soul and the effect of his passing on his family. The phrase “died happy” may strike modern readers as odd. Henry Clark was certainly not pleased to die at the age of 23.

But for a convinced evangelical Methodist such as Rev. Woodworth, “died happy” is most likely shorthand for “died happy in the Lord,” indicating that Henry Clark was clearly committed to his protestant—probably Methodist—faith. If Henry “died happy in the Lord,” that was a good sign that his immortal soul was almost certainly bound for salvation and a place in Heaven. “Died happy” may also indicate that Henry Clark, as a true believer, died comforted by his faith, looking forward to eternal life.

Rev. Woodworth concludes with the observation “he was the only son of his widowed mother; thus are earthly hopes blasted.” This presumably reflects typical 19th-century expectations that a son would grow to manhood, prosper in his work, marry and have his own children. And only a son could inherit and carry forward the family name, insuring that the Clark name endured for generations to come. With Henry’s death, those hopes were ended for the Jonathan Clark family.


We have known for some time that Henry Clark died in April, 1866. Today’s sources add further details and documentation to what we know of Henry’s life and death.

D. W. Maxon’s diary, and Henry’s gravestone at his final resting place, give a death date of April 21, 1866. Maxon specifically states that Henry died at 3:00 a.m. on April 21st. Rev. Woodworth’s date of April 20 is either due to a misprint in his published diary, or he may have recorded the date incorrectly. (This would not be the first instance of such an error in Woodworth’s book; see our discussion of his record of the death of Jonathan M. Clark, here.)

Maxon’s March 8 diary entry is also the first (and only) contemporary explanation of the cause of Henry’s early death. Was Henry’s “severe cough” a symptom of “consumption” (tuberculosis), or of some other disease? We don’t know for sure.

D. W. Maxon’s notes for March 23 remark on the large number of friends of Henry—and of the Clark family—that made the trip from Milwaukee to Cedarburg for the burial. This suggests that Mary Clark’s decision to move her family to Milwaukee in 1861 or ’62 had a positive effect on her children’s social lives. It speaks well of Mary and her children that in only four or five years they had gathered such a large and supportive circle of friends.

Maxon’s notes are also the first clue we have that Henry was initially buried in Cedarburg, just north of Mequon, rather that in his then-current home, Milwaukee. This clue has led to more information and—of course—more questions about the Jonathan M. Clark family burials and what they may reveal about funeral practices and causes of death in mid-nineteenth-century Wisconsin. More on that next time.


UPDATED, June 30, 2021 to add a note:

The “Dr. E. B. Wolcott” mentioned in Maxon’s March 14 diary entry is probably Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott. Page 254 of the 1866 Milwaukee City Directory lists Erastus B. Wolcott, physician, residence at 515 Milwaukee [street]. The same page shows that he practiced as half of “Wolcott & Marks,” with physician Solon Marks, at 136 Wisconsin [street].

I’m guessing that Maxon was concerned about his nephew Henry’s continuing illness, and the “letter” was an invitation for Dr. Wolcott to attend to Henry, for a “second opinion,” in modern terms. Perhaps Maxon also offered to pay for the visit. But that is just speculation on my part.

Further investigation shows that Gen. Erastus Bradley Wolcott, MD (1804 -1880) played an important role in the history of medicine in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Historical Society, has several web pages devoted to Wolcott, including this transcription of a historical marker on the grounds of Milwaukee’s V.A. Hospital:

Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott was an originator of the idea for a national soldiers’ home in Milwaukee. A spirited leader in medicine, business, and government, he was state surgeon general during the Civil War and an ardent advocate for what is now the Veterans Administration Hospital at Wood. The hospital was established in 1867, and Dr. Wolcott was appointed by Congress to the national governing board. Dr. Wolcott was a founder of the State Medical Society in 1841 and the Medical Society of Milwaukee County in 1846. He made surgical history in 1861 as the first physi­cian to remove a diseased kidney. In 1869 he married Dr. Laura J. Ross, the first woman admitted to a medical society in Wisconsin and one of the first three American woman physicians. She erected the monument to Dr. Wolcott in Milwaukee’s Lake Park.


The WHS has a longer biographical sketch, in its online Dictionary of Wisconsin History. His was a fascinating and highly productive life. In a nutshell, Dr. E. B. Wolcott would have been considered among the best of the best in Wisconsin medicine in 1866. Wolcott would have also been someone in Densmore W. Maxon’s circle. They had mutual interests in politics and mental health, among other subjects, and I would not be surprised if their paths crossed more than once. Wolcott is also commemorated with a handsome equestrian statue in Lake Park, Milwaukee.

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